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If the Edmonton Oilers had a chance to lose Shawn Horcoff for absolutely nothing, should they do it? That was the biggest question that the writers here at The Copper and Blue faced as we discussed which players to protect for SB Nation's mock expansion draft. SB Nation has added franchises in Winnipeg and Quebec, and they'll be managed by the esteemed James Mirtle, and Gabriel Desjardins (who'd be better choices as real GM's than Doug MacLean). At first, there was some resistance to the idea of losing Horcoff for nothing - our first vote was 3-2 in favour of protecting him - but as the deadline drew closer, the team of writers agreed that leaving Horcoff available was the way to go.

After the jump we'll take a look at the rules for the mock draft, the whole list of protected and unprotected players, and our reasoning for leaving Horcoff available.

Here are the rules for creating a protected list:

- Teams can protect either 1 goalie, 5 defensemen and 9 forwards OR "2 goalies, 3 defensemen and 7 forwards."

- If you go the two goalie route, at least one goalie left unprotected must have played in at least 10 games last season OR 25 games in the last two seasons combined. One game = at least 31 minutes.

- Each team must leave unprotected at least one defenseman who appeared in 40 games last season OR 70 games in the last two seasons combined.

- Each team must leave unprotected at least two forwards who appeared in 40 games last season OR 70 games in the last two seasons combined.

- Players who have played in 49 or fewer career NHL games are automatically exempt and do not need to be protected.

Ande here are the rules for the selection process:

- Each expansion team selects 30 players. A total of 60 players will be selected.

- The first 24 picks are to be used on 3 goaltenders, 8 defensemen and 13 forwards.

- The final 6 picks can be used to pick a player at any position.

- Only 1 goalie or 1 defenseman can be selected from each existing team.

- No existing team can lose more than 2 players.

- Expansion teams must be compliant with the salary cap.

I decided to put the rules up because they might inform which players the Oilers should protect. But first, we should know which players are eligible to be drafted. Here's the list:

Goalies - Khabibulin, Gerber, Deslauriers.
Defensemen -Souray, Gilbert, Whitney, Vandermeer, Foster, Smid, Strudwick.
Forwards - Horcoff, Penner, Hemsky, Gagner, Brule, Cogliano, Jones, Fraser, Stortini, Jacques, Ondrus, Reddox.

That's it. Everyone else under contract with the Oilers is already exempt and doesn't need to be protected. The first thing to do, then, is decide whether to protect one goalie or two, and the decision is easy. There's no way the Oilers should protect only three defensemen and only seven forwards, which means we'll be protecting only one goalie. So who should that one goalie be? Well, it sure as hell isn't going to be Nikolai Khabibulin, which leaves Gerber and Deslauriers, and there was some debate over this question. Both Gerber and Deslauriers are unrestricted free agents after this year, and in this context, I think there's a much better chance that Gerber's two-way deal gets picked up. Remember, each expansion team is required to select three goalies. There's bound to be a few goalies on one-way deals who are better than Deslauriers, but I doubt there will be many better than Gerber on two-way contracts. He'd be an excellent third goalie pick. As such, we've decided to leave Deslauriers unprotected. If he gets picked up, the developmental focus moves to Devan Dubnyk, and Gerber is still on the farm to cover for Khabibulin (I'm guessing he won't be selected) in case of injury (although Gerber actually has the better EV Sv% of the two since the lockout).

What about the defense? There wasn't much debate on this one. We all saw Strudwick play last year, and it's obvious the Oilers (and Souray) would benefit from seeing Sheldon Souray in another town. If there was value available for him, he'd be traded by now. The Oilers already tried losing him for nothing once. For the purposes of the mock draft, it's time to try again.

And that leaves the forwards, where we need to pay close attention to the rules. Both Liam Reddox and Ben Ondrus need to be protected from selection (they have fifty or more career NHL games played), but neither of them count toward the minimum of two forwards left unprotected (neither played in at least forty games last year or seventy in the last two). Since the Oilers only have twelve eligible forwards, one of those guys will get protected by default, and hopefully we can all agree that Reddox is the better man. Sorry, Liam.

That means that there are two more players to leave out in the open. Thankfully, one of them can be J-F Jacques, whose forty-nine games played last season are, surprisingly, proving useful. And that's where Horcoff comes in. Yes, it's true that Shawn Horcoff is a better player than a lot of guys on this roster. Ryan Jones may be able to draw penalties, but he's not as good at hockey. Zack Stortini does a good job of standing up for his teammates, but there's no way he helps the team win as much as Horcoff. Colin Fraser is a very similar player to Horcoff in terms of role and style, he's just much worse at hockey.

So why would we leave Horcoff unprotected? There are two reasons, and both are pretty obvious. The first is that contract. It's just plain terrible. Horcoff is a good NHL player, but with a cap hit of $5.5M, the gamble is that he'll be one of your three best forwards. And on a good team, he's probably not. His offense last season was offensive (and considering the way MacTavish played him against less challenging opposition in 2006-07, in addition to some pretty hefty luck, Horc's offense hasn't been anything special for four straight years), and the underlying numbers that so often buttress his case are starting to show cracks. His shot rate fell off substantially from a year ago, and his ZoneShift isn't in the range of others doing similar yeoman's work in the Western Conference:


That list has one guy from each team in the West who's doing similar work to Horcoff. Some teams didn't have a good fit (Brodziak, Conroy, Madden), while others played with some fantastic players (Thornton, Getzlaf, Kopitar). But what about guys like Samuel Pahlsson, or Jay McClement? They weren't getting very good help either - and poor Pahlsson has Ethan Moreau this year, which should provide us with a nice comparison - but managed to outperform the $7M-Dollar-Man $5.5M-Dollar-Man.

Was the underperformance this year partly due to injury? It seems likely, but there has been a disturbing trend toward more of those in the last few years, and it's not something that tends to get better as players age. And what if some of that underperformance is already because of advancing age? Let's not forget that Horcoff turns thirty-two in September.

And that brings us to the second major reason: the success cycle. The Oilers aren't going to be a good team in the this year, and it may be more of the same in 2011-12. Losing Horcoff would no doubt make them worse in the short run, but it would have tremendous upside over the long haul. If the Oilers were prepared to compete this year, it would be more tempting to retain the services of Horcoff and hope he's better at 32 than he was at 31. But if the Oilers are planning to be successful in three to five years, is betting on Horcoff's 34-36 y/o seasons really a good bet? I'd say not. I suppose it's possible he outperforms his contract in those seasons, but it seems a lot more likely that his contract becomes an even bigger liability as players like Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky, Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi, and others need to be re-signed - that extra $5.5M in cap space would be awfully nice to have.

So what does that mean for our final list? It means that Horcoff has the indignity of being left unprotected, and if we're honest, probably the indignity of not getting picked too.

The final unprotected list - Khabibulin, Deslauriers, Souray, Strudwick, Horcoff, Jacques, Ondrus.